Unless you have been living the last several years under a rock, you are aware that protesting in the United States has been a common practice, with increased occurrences after the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States.
Oddly enough, however, many people are discontented with the notion of protesting--in particular the protests of Black Lives Matter, post-election Women’s Marches, and any protest having to do with Donald Trump.
In this article I hope to convey how protest is key to American democracy and citizenship. I hope to reach people who view protest with disdain and help them understand why others feel the need to protest, boycott, march, sing, chant, and yes, even riot.
Protest: As American as Apple Pie
I’ll get straight to the point: Virtually everything we have as Americans we have because of protest. The U.S. Constitution initially only applied to rich, white men and we’ve spent the last two and a half centuries working to extend the rights granted in the Constitution to everyone else.
How have we altered the Constitution to include more people? Protest. Protest, protest, protest, protest. And legal suits. But, even before the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, even before the Declaration of Independence, colonists protested the British in various ways:
The Boston Tea Party (destruction of property, no less)
Homespun clothing (in lieu of purchasing clothing from the British)
Formation of the First Continental Congress
Formation of militias
The Declaration of Independence itself
Protest literally formed the United States of America. How can modern Americans look at protesters and call them un-American?
Not only did protest create our nation, protest continues to make it better. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This is incredibly evident in American history. Rights that should have been granted to every American from the beginning, have instead been fought for with courage, tenacity, pain, determination, and, of course, hard resistance from those comfortable with the status quo.
We fought for property rights.
We fought for voting rights.
We fought for the right to be viewed as human beings (think slavery, Civil Rights, and Women’s Rights).
We fought for workers’ rights.
We fought for parental rights.
We fought for environmental rights.
We fought for Indigenous rights.
We fought for States’ rights.
We fought for LGBT rights.
We fought for reproductive rights.
We fought for religion rights.
We are still fighting for so many of these rights!
A country can’t grant rights to the few and expect to have smooth-sailing from then on.
Trump won the Presidency with the slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and fans chanting, “I want my country back!” The distressing reality of these slogans is, they recall times in American history when so many rights were withheld from so many citizens. How can we possibly be okay with going backwards?
The Meaning of Protest
Many people are uncomfortable with protest, which is fine because protest is supposed to make people uncomfortable. In its simplest form, protest is merely someone saying, “Hey, this isn’t okay. Let’s do something about it.” It’s a voice of dissent. It’s an action that says, enough is enough and we’re not putting up with injustice any longer.
If a protest makes you uncomfortable, try asking yourself why. You can bet white people in the South were uncomfortable when Civil Rights activists refused to vacate lunch counters in restaurants designated “white only.” You can bet President Wilson was uncomfortable when the Silent Sentinels took up residence outside the White House gate. You can bet locals of Standing Rock, North Dakota--and oil tycoons--were uncomfortable when Sioux Indians camped for months at the Dakota Access Pipeline.
If protest makes you uncomfortable, that discomfort just might be a symptom of your privilege being threatened. Allow me to make another conjecture: If you have never felt the need to protest, you have lived your life in epic privilege.
Protest is when the minority uses their voice. Protest is when injustice becomes too burdensome to bear. Protest is when the risk of jail, harassment, beating, death all become worthwhile because the alternative is no longer an option. Protest is humanity standing up for itself.
Violence in Protest
Violence in protest is a sticky subject. Violence is used as an excuse to resist providing the rights protesters demand. Violence can be used as a last resort. Violence can help outsiders view the protest with empathy and care.
Martin Luther King is famous for his use of peaceful resistance. But the truth is, without violence his work might not have progressed the way it did. King used the violence against black people to inspire white people into action. The hate and rage that incited the police force in Selma, Alabama to attack peaceful protesters on Bloody Sunday 1965 spurred onlookers to join the cause for Voting Rights.
Violence has certainly had its use in effecting change. But what about riots perpetrated by protesters? Going once again to the wisdom of Doctor King, he said, “...I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?...It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity."
I don’t personally condone rioting, or even punching Nazis in the face. Time after time, the result of a riot is injury, death, the loss of livelihoods, and increased resistance to the cause for which people are fighting. But, whenever a riot ensues, I have to ask: What makes these protesters so desperate that rioting seems like a good idea? What is society at large refusing to understand?
Of course, not all riots are the result of hard-working protesters. There are riots that result from some people just wanting to make a fuss. But, riots aren’t the majority of protests and rioters aren’t the majority of protesters.
To use the existence of riots to condemn protesters is asinine and lacking in any real empathy.
The few violent protesters DO NOT represent Black Lives Matter.
The few people who burned a limo and invaded a Starbucks on January 20 DO NOT represent Trump dissenters or Women’s Marchers.
Taken from another perspective, violence can be seen as the logical eventuality for a group that has faced constant discrimination. Malcolm X said,
“I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones that seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.”
When you look at violence at the hands of protesters from this perspective, it makes sense that violence would erupt when, after years and years of oppression, there is still not significant change.
And let’s not forget: Violence during protest is often perpetrated against protesters. That is why relying on violent eruptions against peaceful black protesters during the Civil Rights Movement was an effective way to capture the attention of the nation. During the DAPL protests, police used water cannons against protesters, despite temperatures already being below freezing.
That’s not to say you have to be OK with violence in protest, regardless of which side perpetrates it. But when the masses ignore the voices of the oppressed in favor of an ignorant perception of peace, that in itself is an act of violence.
The Risk of Getting in Line
It’s easy to look at the past from the perceived comfort of 2017 and say, “If I’d been alive back then I would never have had slaves/lynched a black person/denied a domestic violence victim a divorce/betrayed my Jewish neighbors/sent my Japanese-American friends to camps/stolen land from Native Americans and committed genocide/etc. It’s so easy to say that. And yet, when situations on par with the past arise, modern humanity continues to fail.
As detailed in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow actively impacts the black community today. Black people are disproportionately represented in prisons across the country, and “tough on crime” legislation frequently directly impacts minority groups.
Violence wherein a police officer kills a black person is fairly frequent news, and usually met with conflict easily divided by racial and class lines. Despite videos clearly depicting brutal deaths of black citizens, many people still somehow think the death is justified.
This is getting in line. People are literally being murdered, and somehow justification arises for the deaths.
In a past article I wrote for my website, I quoted Hannah Arendt saying, “The problem, the personal problem, was not what our enemies did, but what our friends did. Friends ‘coordinated’ or got in line.”
It is easy for tyranny and oppression to take hold when good people do nothing. People who can’t imagine the atrocity of registering Jews in 1930’s Germany have no qualms with the idea of registering Muslims in 2017 U.S.A, or blocking immigration from Muslim-dominated countries and ending sanctuary for refugees.
Getting in line is how oppression succeeds. Getting in line is the absence of protest, the attitude of disdain towards those who refuse to get in line. Getting in line is hostility towards those who would stand up for rights.
Protesting in 2017
I attended the Salt Lake City Women’s March on Monday, January 23. About 6,000 other people joined me in marching to the State Capitol on the opening day of the legislative session.
I had thought about “covering” the march for my website, as in writing about it like a reporter would. But, with all the outcry against protest bouncing in my mind, I opted to just participate--to just be at the protest.
I was struck by the magnitude of the march. Salt Lake is a tiny city, so 6,000 participants is quite impressive. I was also struck--as I usually am when protesting my local government--by how, despite the power and presence of the protesters, many members of the Legislature would continue to ignore us.
The State Senate, in lieu of leaving chambers to listen to the March’s speakers, turned up their microphones in an attempt to drown out the noise. Senate President Niederhauser admitted he’d like to know more, but didn’t take the easy opportunity to hear what we were saying. “I just don’t know what they’re saying. I mean, I hear the noise. So the message from the noise is this is obviously a big concern for people in our state... I’d like to know more about what their message is.”
It is shockingly easy for people to get in line and ignore the voices resounding (sometimes literally) outside their doors. 2017 in the United States of America is the year to listen to those voices, if you haven’t already. Donald Trump is already using his power to limit the rights of Americans, and the Republican-controlled Congress thus far only enables him.
Use your voice. Go to a protest--even if it’s just to see what protesting is all about. Join the American tradition of protest, and stand up for yourself, for your neighbors, for those whose voices are too often ignored.